A quarter century of turnaround: the subway's recovery

In the last 25 years, NYCT Subway made its bigggest turnaround in a 103-year history. From the lowest MBDFs in the early 1980s and a time when most cars were tagged to a entirely modern, air-conditioned stainless steel fleet today, this quarter century was an epic success in planning and progress.

Back in 1981, the subway was at is lowest point in history with two-thirds of cars out of order and nearly all "tagged". Track was in bad shape and with frequent fires. It took several attempts to bring it back-first with the "all white" paint on the IRT SMEE cars. This worked in keeping taggers off the 7, but not the IRT Main Line, which continued in sore shape. The BMT and IND were sorely in need of new cars, with the R10s dating back to 1948 and R27/30s very worn out by 1985.

Under David Gunn's new programs, cars would be cleaned on a regular basis, older cars would be rebuilt in general overhaul and new cars purchased in the Capital Programs. Graffiti would hopefully be eliminated with these measures, along with security at the yards. Corona was the first yard to take active measures against security in 1981 and by 1984-86 any vandal that tagged the 7 would have "hit the jackpot"-the intense security at Corona, including chain link wire fencing, assault guard dogs, security cameras and yard light made the IRT Queensboro division hard to hit. By 1986, Gunn Fox red and silver paint was introduced on the IRT Main Line and 7, reducing tagging even more. By late 1986 the 7 only had 7.3% cars with exterior graffiti; the BMT Eastern Division over 80%. The 4 was all clean with new R62s from Kawasaki by now and the R62As and R68s just began regularly scheduled service. Surviving taggers really only had the BMT left to do their dirty work.

In 1988 and 1989 the Archer Avenue and IND 63 Street Lines opened respectively. Both began construction in the late 1960s and early 70s but were held up due to construction delays and bureaucratic reasons. The Archer line provided the first subway link to the Long Island Rail Road's Jamaica hub and transfer station while the IND 63 Street line was the first subway to serve the "island within Manhattan"-Roosevelt Island. It was connected to the IND Queens Boulevard main line in 2001.

By 1989 the subway was largely in a good shape and the rolling stock began to return to good condition. The postwar IRT SMEE single cars were retired by 1987, and the BMT R16 in 1986-87 and unrebuilt R27/30s in 1988-90. The last graffitied cars were removed from service on May 12 and the R10s, the first postwar IND cars were retired on September 8, 1989. The TA promised by 1992 all subway cars "will be new or rebuilt". It kept on schedule and the R33 ML and R44 rebuilding projects were completed by 1992.

The MetroCard premiered on January 6, 1994. By May 1997 it was accepted at all 469 stations and all NYCT and MTA buses and would one day see use on LI Bus, Roosevelt Island Tram, PATH and Bee-Line as a regional fare device.

Into the next century NYCT continues the moderization of the subway, with improvements in trains and stations. The IRT SMEE Redbirds, some dating back to the mid-1950s and others to 1964 were to be phased out. "New Millennium" R142/143 cars with automated annoucements, full ADA access, automatic climate control and AC traction arrived starting in 1999 and well into 2002. The current MDBF rating is more than ten times what it was during the subway's dark days of the early 80s (150,433 miles annual as 8/2007). The number of wheelchair/ADA-accessible stations is now at 65. Many stations and complexes have been renovated or rebuilt including Coney Island-Stillwell Terminal, Grand Central, Roosevelt Avenue-74 Street and Times Square. The phase out of the Redbirds allowed the subway to have a entirely modern, air-conditioned fleet. Both the Manhattan and Williamburg Bridges were rebuilt beween 1988 and 2005.

NYCT's turnaround from the 1980s to today may very well be the best part of the subway's history. It took teams of bureaucratic management, senior officials, car mechanics, cleaners, engineers, private contractors and consultants to make it. It also affected popular culture in a way as well. For example if you look at late 70s/80s films with subway scenes, most depict the subway in a negative, deplorable light (many crime thrillers or cop dramas). More films since 1990 or so have been filmed in New York and often use subway shoots, but with a good clean reputation (These tend to be more of the comedy/romance titles and some dramas). You can thank Dave Gunn for all this.